Summary: Our rail network is the fastest growing in Europe, with overcrowding on many routes. Growth projections for passenger and freight requirements by 2030 will not be satisfied by building new tracks. To fill this void, an overhaul of the technology used in the rail network is being proposed by the Digital Railway Programme to release more capacity from our existing rail network.

What is the Digital Railway?

The Digital Railway involves the implementation of these new technologies across the UK to control train movement and manage traffic on the rail network, leading to increased capacity, reliability, safety and insight into our rail network. The emerging global standard is the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), involving the European Train Control System (ETCS) and a GSM-R network to enable communication between trains and radio block centres.

The Digital Railway Programme

A cross-industry group called the Digital Railway Programme is co-ordinating this programme. It is led by an Advisory Group that informs and sets the programme direction and which includes ATOC, the Rail Delivery Group, Network Rail and the Department for Transport.

The global supply industry has also been engaged by the Digital Railway Programme, through an Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) workstream. The intention is to engage the industry in as collaborative and effective a way as possible.

Size of the opportunity

The Digital Railway programme is now gaining momentum, with the Chancellor having announced in his 2016 Autumn Statement that funding of £450 million would be made available towards trialling digital railway technology.

The Digital Railway’s preference to progress route-wide long-term implementations of this technology will create big opportunities for the supply chain. If work packages are implemented in this manner, it will give the supply industry longer term commitments across a wider scope of works.

This was in evidence at the Digital Railway Early Contractor Involvement Conference in January where global suppliers who had contributed to the study presented their detailed findings to the supply industry and other members of the Digital Railway Programme (including Network Rail).

BLP Hosted Digital Railway event

On 7 February 2017, Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP hosted London First’s “Digital Railway” event. David Waboso (Managing Director, Digital Railway, Network Rail) presented on the importance of the Digital Railway to the modernisation of the UK’s rail infrastructure. The event was attended by leading global suppliers who have successfully delivered ERTMS implementations in other countries. During the panel discussion facilitated by London First, the emerging theme centred on choosing the right commercial and contractual structure to implement the Digital Railway and to ensure all relevant stakeholders were effectively incentivised to make it a success.

What is next for the Digital Railway Programme?

The next milestone for the programme will involve Network Rail publishing in April 2017 business cases justifying the implementation of Digital Rail technologies on 8 routes. Assuming the business cases are approved we expect the procurement process to start, covering one or more work packages for each of these routes.

In the lead up to these business cases being published, we will be writing a series of short articles sharing our views on the multiplicity of issues which the Digital Railway programme must navigate.

The challenge of our current system

The foremost hurdle is our rail franchising system. In a fragmented system of different routes, each with different infrastructure and technology legacies, different franchising deadlines, different Train Operating Companies, different classes of trains and different levels of demand there will be competing intricacies that a national technology and infrastructure programme must take account of.

It was an example of these intricacies that led Network Rail to scale back its Norwich – Yarmouth – Lowestoft Digital Railway pilot, from a full ERTMS deployment by 2019 to just a new signalling solution – this was because the route’s legacy signalling infrastructure needed to be replaced by 2019 and so this took priority to a full ERTMS deployment (the signalling solution will instead be “ERTMS-enabled”).

This is why Network Rail has opted to approach the programme on a per route basis, focussing on 8 initial routes against which to test the business case. However as routes will each have their own idiosyncratic requirements, it cannot be assumed that routes which suffer from the highest under capacity will be prioritised for the business case.

Multiple Stakeholders

The Digital Railway programme will be far reaching. Which means a gargantuan task of managing the multiple stakeholders who will undoubtedly be involved. There will be Digital Railway Contractors split between in-cab, trackside and rail operating centre technologies. There will also be other contractors in the supply chain. And then there are the Train Operating Companies, Freight Operating Companies, Rail Stock Operating Companies, Network Rail (and other infrastructure owners), the ORR, and the DfT. All of these entities will be involved on each route on which the technology is implemented. The complexities include dependencies and risks to manage between all these stakeholders, re-franchising timetables to take account of and delivery plans and associated disruption to train service schedules. In this environment, failures to complete a project within an available window could lead to disproportionate delays. A recent example is the delay in the roll out of the new Traffic Management System at the new Romford Rail Operating Centre. The system will now only be able to be commissioned once a suitable route closure of up to 27 hours is agreed between Network Rail and the relevant Train Operating Company.

The Alliance Contracting Model

In a multi-route & multi-stakeholder environment, the usual contracting model of bi-lateral arrangements will no longer do. Network Rail would be left holding too many dependencies and risks for this to be a viable model.

Enter the Alliance model. This is a different form of contract in which multiple contracting parties will engage to achieve a common purpose, with shared incentives and risks for all concerned. It avoids dependencies being used as an excuse for failure. It also creates shared accountability as much of the usual procuring authority decision making will be ceded to the Alliance (of which the procuring authority will be a member). It features strongly in the South Eastern Franchise consultation recently published, as a means to ensure the future Train Operating Company (running the route) and Network Rail can create integrated teams to achieve better passenger outcomes.